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Movie Answer Man (09/12/1999)

Q. In your discussion of "The Astronauts Wife," you suggested that some women might value the experience of being pregnant with an alien child. This is not only true, but they might not mind giving birth on the Internet. (Michael Jones, Chicago)

A. A brilliant screenplay idea. With few exceptions, Hollywood assumes aliens are hostile and must be destroyed. I'm reminded, however, by George Bacon of Cedaredge, Colo., of John Carpenter's "Starman" (1984)--with Jeff Bridges as a gentle alien who leaves behind a pregnant Karen Allen when he returns home. The kid would be in high school now.

Q. In your review of "Chill Factor," you write that David Paymer's character has dialogue "seemingly co-written by Carl Sagan and Mephistopheles." You cite his lamentation: "I am become Death--the destroyer of worlds." This is precisely what J. Robert Oppenheimer is reported to have said on witnessing the first test of an atomic bomb at Alamogordo, and he was quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita. (Bruce Reznick, Urbana, IL)

A. As well he might.

Q. Entertainment Weekly magazine recently dumped one of its Critical Mass film critics, the LA Weekly's Manohla Dargis, because her reviews were considered too harsh. She's a tough critic and gave lower grades to movies like "Phantom Menace," which got an F. Should she have been allowed to continue to bring down the EW curve? Was her taste too high-brow for a rating system based on grading mainstream studio movies? (Anne Thompson, New York City)

A. Her perspective added a nice balance to EW's mix, and exposed the magazine's readers to the possibility that not everybody was on the same wavelength. Editors once looked for tough critics. Now too many of them look for critics who will reflect reader tastes, instead of leading them. EW's own critics have strong tastes; my guess is Dargis's grades were not a problem in the magazine so much as on the magazine's TV show. Television likes happytalk and consensus; dissent is confusing for viewers.

Q. I read the film critic in a political magazine my father gets. It seems like every time I read his review of a film I thought was great, he hated it. He always backs up his criticism with obscure scholarly comparison, quoting from sophisticated books and citing old movies. I can't help wondering, when I walk out of a theater having completely enjoyed a movie that he didn't, am I somehow too young to have good taste? Or is it that film critics have become too jaded and have lost their compassion and love for film? (Dan Gilbert, Vestal NY)

A. Let's start by assuming the magazine didn't choose its critic to appeal to the sons of its readers. You are not too young to have good taste, but there's still room to develop that taste. The fact that you ask such questions is a very good sign. Are critics jaded? In most cases, they love film more than the average moviegoer, which is why they hold it to a high standard. And shouldn't they have more compassion for moviegoers than for movies?

Q. I heard that "The Blair Witch Project" would be released on tape and DVD at Halloween! This seems AWFULLY quick for a blockbuster that's still in theaters. (Rae Cooke, Naperville, Ill)

A. Video date is Oct. 22. Two reasons: Striking while the iron is hot, and the low likelihood that a network would have the nerve to air such an odd-looking film in prime time.

Q. It really bugs me when people complain about the shaky camera in "Blair Witch." "I hated it!" they say. "The camera movement made me sick!" I'm willing to accept this from a moviegoer who may not know any better, but what's sickening is when a newspaper pans it for the same reason. I expect them to know better, or are they so stupid that they just don't get it? (Bruce Maiman, Monterey, CA)

A. "The Blair Witch Project" hasn't received the respect it deserves because many viewers confuse its style with its construction. Yes, it was shot with cheap hand-held cameras. But the structure of the film is subtle and effective, and that's why it works. Stand back from the visuals and notice how suspense is built in a counterpoint of humor, realism and character, and you're looking at a well-made film. It didn't just happen by giving the actors cameras and having them run around in the woods.

Q. In a recent Answer Man column, you said you had never met anybody from the National Board of Review, that mysterious organization that's first with a list of the year's best movies. Did that item inspire any board members to contact you? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg, IL)

A. No, but last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, a woman stood in front of me and announced that (a) she existed, and (b) she was a director of the National Board of Review. Her name was Lois Ballon, and it was a relief to meet her because now I can tell Robert Stack to call off his Unsolved Mysteries investigation.

Q. Why hasn't the 3-D concept taken off and become acceptable? Theme parks have been using 3-D images for years to great effect. Why have films relegated 3-D to cheesy schlock? When we go to the movies we demand realistic surround sound, but when it comes to the picture we refuse to let it be anything but 2-D! (Micah Haddad, Memphis)

A. The 3-D effect at IMAX and Omnimax theaters is impressive, using expensive custom glasses. But 3-D as it has been presented in ordinary theatrical films has always looked crappy; it's not more realistic but less--a distraction.

Q. No interview with Sandra Bullock seems complete nowadays without her bringing up her disgust with herself for agreeing to star in "Speed 2: Cruise Control." She begs our forgiveness. You gave three stars to the movie, going against the critical consensus. Do you think she is truly contrite, or is she trying to curry favor with the critics after the film's critical savaging? (Lloyd A. White, Rockville Md)

A. The dissing of "Speed 2" has become a popular folk ritual, and Bullock has cravenly joined in. She would have performed more of a service by warning us against "Forces Of Nature." I am grateful to movies that show me what I haven't seen before, and "Speed 2" had cruise ship plowing right up the main street of a Caribbean village. Last spring at the University of Colorado, in self-defense I announced a short film contest for "Speed 3." Rules: On VHS, no longer than five minutes, must involve something that cannot stop moving. Finalists will be shown at CU's Conference on World Affairs, and at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana. Winner gets a copy of the DVD of "Speed 2," autographed by me, since I wouldn't think of causing any more pain to Bullock. Entries to Russell Wiltse, Campus Box 316, Boulder, Colo. 80309-0316. Deadline March 1.

Q. Why doesn't Hollywood realize that the view through binoculars is not two circles fused together, but just one circular field of view? (John Koenig, Waconia MN)

A. Hollywood knows that, but the convention of two linked circles provides convenient visual shorthand. One circle on the screen would be confused with an iris shot, and be more distracting than the traditional approach which has grown comfortable.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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